Everyone knows what they say about public speaking, and unfortunately, I am no exception to the rule; save for having had an exceptional role model and standard bearer in my life—my mother. Mind you, she would have asked me to write her remarks, but if the situation called for it, she would have stood up here—calm, confident and collected; with no complaints.
Strength and fearlessness. Those are the first qualities that come to mind when I think of my mother and her example.
There is a Zora Neale Hurston quote which reminds us that Love, like the ocean, is different on every shore. Like the ocean, my mother had great depth and complexity and was someone unique to each of us. My remarks this morning are a composite I share on behalf of my family.
To my father: my mother was a pillar of strength from day one. When he asked her father for my mother’s hand in marriage, my grandfather told him no. He said, “I’ve heard about your reputation and you’re not good enough for my daughter.” At which point, my father said, “okay;” and my mother stepped up and said, “We’re getting married.”
Having established herself as the final arbitrator of important decisions in their partnership, it comes as no surprise that my mother was the one who asked my father to marry her last August. They were on one of their walks up the lane and my mother announced that she thought she’d like to get married. My father said fine, and figured that was the end of it. But when she brought it up again the next day, he decided that maybe they should. So in a small private ceremony in the living room with a few friends presiding, my parents renewed their vows. Though she wasn’t fully aware of what was going on, it was a very moving moment for my father and all of us. What made it complete, however, is that a few days later—news had spread—and another friend stopped by to say congratulations. My mother beamed like a bride and showed off her ring, then said: “I’m not sure if it’s going to work out.”
For those of you who have witnessed all that my father did for my mother throughout her illness, and have been moved by his example, he reminded me that it doesn’t add up to a pinch of applesauce compared to all she did for him. For 50 years, my father will tell you, his job was to take out the trash and read the junk mail; my mother handled absolutely everything else. Before her illness, my father had never even written so much as a check. She was his pillar of strength and she stood by his side as his equal.
She also stood by his side as the straight man to his folly. My father will tell you that my mother saved him from making a lot of bad decisions in his life. And my brother, when I asked for his impressions, talked about her role in our family as the straight man to my father’s joking and mischief.
The first thing that came to mind for Robert, was hearing my mother’s voice in his head say: “Richard. That’s enough.” Always the rascal, with a merry band of kids happy to be on the joking side, my father liked to stir the pot; and when he went too far, my mother had a way of saying his name that meant business—but was absent any bitterness. She didn’t compete with my father, she complemented him; and it wasn’t until her dementia that I even realized how funny she was in her own right. Witty with impeccable timing.
And in the same vein, while everyone is familiar with my father’s art; my mother was actually the artist in the family. When I think of my mother, I am grateful to her for teaching me how to see the world around me with the discernment of an artist. To notice beauty everywhere. Colors, textures, patterns; balance. A tree was never just a tree. Trees have faces in them if you look properly. My mother modeled the artist’s aesthetic and attention to detail in everything she did. She taught me how to curate beauty and she passed on the joy of creating.
But my mother didn’t just notice beauty in the natural world, she saw the beauty in people, and exuded a warmth of affection to everyone unconditionally. When I asked Leo and Heike for their impressions, both opened by talking about the first time they met my mother. There was to be no Mrs. Nolker and handshaking, she said to each of them: “Call me Lesley. Please. And I want a hug.”
Kind—and direct. She also wanted to know how Leo planned to support her daughter. Leo, who came from a family that didn’t hug, was immediately obliged to become a hugger and with his next breath account for himself. That never changed. Support—balanced with a healthy dose of her opinion—was something my mother gave generously.
My sister’s experience of my mother’s love is recorded. A stack of one- and two-line notes my mother wrote Cary throughout her life; always on recycled scraps of paper. They were love notes of inspiration and encouragement she tucked in her lunchbox, left in her bedroom and later mailed to her. “I love you. I love you a bunch. Guess what? I love you unconditionally.” And a note that read: “No one is guaranteed happiness. Life just gives each person time and space and it’s up to us to fill it up. I love you mom.”
Filling up the time and space is something Heike will tell you she did well. The first year that Heike arrived in the states from Germany, Robert travelled with work and my mother insisted that Heike tag along with her. They volunteered; they visited; they roamed—something my mother, to her delight, was able to do right up until the end thanks to Vickie Clark and her daughter Vickie Lambert, the angels that cared for her.
I was my mother’s littlest angel growing up, and when I asked her oldest granddaughter, Kara, for her contribution, she said: “I was her precious angel and now she’s mine.” She also credited Granny for giving her her sweet tooth—”She spoiled us rotten. Toast with cinnamon sugar and—peaches and cream.” Spike, her oldest grandson didn’t hesitate with his answer. —“Peaches and cream! I tear up just thinking about it. She was a sweetheart.”
My mother saw people with the imagination of an Artist and the heart of an angel. To her youngest grandchildren, Julie and Christopher, my mother’s love expressed through the creativity of her gifts; her prescient ability to know exactly what someone needed and would enjoy. Like the beauty she cultivated in her garden, my mother knew how to sow joy—she knew how to Love and she did so with great feeling.
My mother was my father’s Dulcinea—
“To each his Dulcinea
That he alone can name…
To each a secret hiding place
Where he can find the haunting face
To light his secret flame.
For with his Dulcinea
Beside him so to stand,
A man can do quite anything,
Outfly the bird upon the wing,
Hold moonlight in his hand.”
My father loved to serenade my mother. First, Dulcinea, and once she was ill, Have I Told You Lately That I Love you. This brought a smile to my mother’s face every time; including the day she died. We would like to conclude this celebration of her life—and the love she inspired—by asking everyone to sing with us while thinking of someone you love. In my mother’s honor—today and every day—we ask you to remember to put love and laughter in your heart and make a joyful noise onto the world.